Can we really make sustainable shifts in our behaviour?

How do we embed desired changes so we don’t keep defaulting to old ways that no longer serve us?

Driving positive change through conscious leadership

I’m very interested in what drives change in people because I’m invested in generating positive impact in the world through more conscious leadership. Most recently my curiosity led me to sign up for the Neuroscience of Change course through Coaches Rising, a global company running transformative training programs for coaches. 

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system (brain, spinal cord, autonomic and peripheral nervous system) and its functions. When we understand what happens in the brain and body, these can inform how coaching effects even more change. 

There are of course many complex layers to this field and it is constantly evolving. 

Dr Amanda Blake, the author of the bestselling book ‘Your Body Is Your Brain’ and the creator of the popular Body = Brain course on the neurobiology of experiential learning, offers an important perspective on this field that is useful to mention upfront. Science speaks in averages and is indicative of how we can bring about greater change, and each of us is unique and ultimately effective coaching focuses on the individual in their particular context. 

Key neuroscience pointers

At this stage the Neuroscience of Change points to being able to create new neural pathways based on:

  • Really wanting to change something
  • Being intentional about the change
  • Commitment and practice to show up to the new way

Here is a little more context:

  • We used to think that the brain couldn’t change in adulthood. It can, just much slower than when we’re growing up. If we remain thirsty for learning, our neuroplasticity remains strong, so we have the ability to change things. If we don’t cultivate learning, neuroplasticity atrophies. Adults are well equipped to change long standing behaviours.
  • Our whole body is our brain (we are not just the brain in our heads) and is the source of all experience. The nervous system is actually distributed throughout the body, and not restricted to the organ in the skull. The body and the central nervous system i.e. the brain and spinal cord are in continuous bi-directional communication. The more we bring in an experiential and somatic approach to change, the more we can tap into multiple intelligences to help us understand our hardwired patterns and how we can shift things. 
  • We have to surface what’s present before new learning can take place. This means revealing the invisibles around our patterns, relating to exteroception (our senses), interoception (internal sensations e.g. temperature, pressure and movement), proprioception (our spatial position, posture and movement), emotions and our conceptual or thinking awareness. A coach can help with this. 
  • Our brains learn and change their physical shape through repetition and immersion and we need to be emotionally connected to why we’re doing this for it to have impact. As Dr Blake says: “Awareness creates choice. Practice creates capacity.” 
  • We get stuck because we have come to embody certain ways of being that were once smart and adaptive that now no longer serve us and are therefore maladaptive. We can change these ways by creating a prominent contrast between the old or current way and the desired, new way and through embodied practice that cultivates stepping into the new way. When we experience a mismatch between old and new ways, and there is a moment of insight, we can start releasing an embodied memory and shift towards the new way with practice. 

A practical way to try this out

Here is a practical and powerful tool to play with this, from Dr Amanda Blake at Embright.

  • Partner: Work with a colleague, friend, or coach to try this out.
  • Identify a future state: Identify a longing, hope, desire, vision, or goal that really matters to you. A good goal is something that you truly desire and that you don’t quite know how to achieve yet. It’s going to require you to grow in some way in order to get there, otherwise you’d already be doing it. 
  • Connect to the current state: Connect to the current state that you want to leave behind. Have your partner ask questions to help you surface some of your own invisibles around your current state. 
    • What are the habits-of-body that are getting in your way? 
    • Where is this state mostly located in your body? What do you notice around temperature? Pressure? Movement? 
    • What is being expressed by your posture or hands or body movements? 
    • What is the mood associated with this state? What are the words?
  • Connect to the future state: If you were at your best, how would you approach this hope, desire or vision? See if you can surface the invisibles around this. In an experiential way, get more familiar with you at your best, in detail.
    • Where in your life have you had experiences of being this best self? 
    • Where is this located in your body? What do you notice about temperature, pressure, movement? 
    • How does this state find expression in your hands, posture and body movements? 
    • What are the emotions and words associated with this state?
  • Contrast the difference between the two states: Really explore the felt-sense difference between your current state and your desired state.
  • Design a practice to embody the future state: With your partner, collaborate to design a practice that helps you to embody your best self and involves:
    • Identifying a background mood for this state
    • A very simple mantra (a few words that you will say to help you step into this desired state) 
    • A visible gesture or body movement that expresses this new state
  • Practise the practice: Try practicing this mood, mantra, movement way of being several times a day for a few weeks. Create reminders that will help you be deliberate about practising this. Remember, it’s the repetition and immersion that helps shift things. 

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